Reports of pending deportation have recent Central American migrants fearful

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Media reports that the Obama administration plans to start deporting recently-arrived Central Americans has migrants in a panic, and advocates and churches making contingency plans.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials have yet to confirm a broad deportation plan, but reports suggest that Central American families who arrived in a wave of migration that peaked in mid-2014 - and who have already been ordered deported - could be picked up and deported as soon as next month.

Cessia, a mother of two who did not want her last name used, fears she could be among these.

"If immigration, or any officer, arrests me and sees that I have a deportation order, they won't let me go," said Cessia, who now lives in Ontario with her family. "Everything will be over." 

Cessia arrived in the U.S. in the fall of 2014, after fleeing El Salvador with her children. She owned a small grocery store back home. Like many other business owners, she said this made her the target of gang members, who extorted her and demanded free goods.

"They come in, or send in their kids or wives, and demand things," she said. "They'd say they would pay me later that night, but they never would."

Cessia said any protest by her was met with threats, to her and to her family. Eventually, she felt forced to shut down her store and flee with her young son and daughter to the U.S., where her husband already lived.

It took them a month to traverse Mexico, she said. Once she arrived and was released from detention, she registered with immigration officials. She thought she was doing the right thing, regularly checking in, keeping her appointments. But one appointment fell through the cracks: An immigration court date. Cessia said she wasn't aware of it.

"That was my mistake," Cessia said. "They didn't tell me that  I had to report to immigration and to report to court."

Cessia, who had sought asylum in the U.S., was ordered deported in absentia. But she only found out recently. She said that during her most recent appointment with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, no one advised her of this.

Cessia's situation isn't that uncommon, said Tessie Borden with the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles. The center provides pro-bono legal representation for some migrants.

"There was a requirement that they check in with ICE, and there was a requirement that they check in with the courts," Borden said. "The courts and ICE were not talking to each other, have not been talking to each other. So when a family thinks they are doing one check-in, they think they are done with their duty. But in fact, they need to check in two places."

Borden said chances of being able to stay legally in the U.S. have been greater for those families who have legal assistance - but many don't.

"It's been a confusing process," Borden said. "That is what makes it doubly dangerous also for families that don’t have any kind of representation."

Cessia is now working with legal counsel to have her asylum case re-opened. But she doesn't know what will happen if agents come to send her and her children back to El Salvador.

"To go back to my country - can you imagine?" she said. "The gangs know that I came here. If they know that I fled...that makes me afraid for my children."

In the meantime, local immigrant advocacy groups and church leaders have been making contingency plans. Some churches are weighing whether to offer sanctuary to migrants seeking a safe space if immigration agents indeed start knocking on doors.

That still remains to be seen. But while they haven't confirmed the media reports, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said in a statement last week that the agency's deportation priorities "include individuals, whether alone or with family members, who have been apprehended while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States, recent border crossers, and individuals who have received a  final order of removal on or after January 1, 2014."

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